Oyster Card or Travelcard | Which Is Best?
This post compares the Oyster Card vs. the Travelcard to help you decide which one is best for you. When it comes to traveling around London, public transport is the easiest, cheapest, and most authentic way to go. To get the best value for your money when moving through the capital, it’s always worth checking out your options. No matter the length of time you will be in London, whereabouts you want to go, or which mode of transport you wish to take, there are transport ticket options for everyone! Detailed here are the most common (and most useful) ticket types. Also, be sure to check out our tips on navigating the Underground and review of which hop on, hop off bus service is the best!
There are 2 different types of Oyster Cards: a Visitor Oyster Card and a Regular Oyster Card. They function in essentially the same way, but with a few key differences.
Visitor Oyster Card
This card can be purchased in advance and mailed to you anywhere in the world. This is great for those of you feel stressed out about the idea of buying an Oyster Card while in London, and therefore would prefer to just have it sorted prior to arrival.
However, there are a few drawbacks to the Visitor Oyster Card. Namely, it costs £3 plus shipping and handling for the card to be sent. Also, you can’t apply any of the Travel Cards (these are explained later) to the Visitor Oyster Card, so if you were planning on using those, don’t buy a Visitor Oyster Card.
There are also some discounts that can be applied to certain restaurants and tourist attractions with the Visitor Oyster Card. None of the deals are that spectacular and you generally get much better discounts with the London Pass but check out their list in case any appeal to you.
Ultimately, if you want to have your card before arriving in the UK, then buy a Visitor Oyster Card. Regular Oyster Cards can only be purchased in the UK. They are very simple to buy and can be purchased all over the city, but if you don’t want to bother with that, then opt for a Visitor Oyster Card.
Regular Oyster Card
This is the choice for Londoners themselves – everybody who lives in London has an Oyster Card! The most common way to use an Oyster Cards is to ‘pay as you go.’ You simply add money onto your card at either a Tube station (all stations have kiosks where you can add money via cash or card), online or at a random shop where you see an Oyster Card sign. It is very simple to do and we walk you through this process in the next section.
The other options are to load your Oyster Car with a 1-Day-Travel Card, 7-Day-Travel Card, Monthly Travel Card, or even a Yearly Travel Card. If you are planning on travel around the city a lot over a certain period, then this might be your preferred option over ‘pay as you go’. We explain more about Travel Cards and when you should choose them later in this post.
Oyster cards are reusable so you can load and reload your card as many times as you need to while you’re here. Visitors can even take their oyster cards back home with them and either keep them as souvenirs or hold onto them until their next trip to London!
How to Buy a Regular Oyster Card
To get yourself an Oyster card you can simply go to the window at any London Underground Station and request one, or use some of the many self-service ticket machines at busier Underground Stations.
You will need to pay a £5.00 deposit, which is held by Transport for London – but can be reimbursed to you whenever you return your Oyster card back to any London Underground Station at the end of your visit. In addition to collecting your deposit, you can also receive any extra money you put onto the card that you have not yet spent.
However! The money you have loaded onto your Oyster card does not expire, which means if you don’t spend it all before you leave, it will remain on your card until your next visit. So if you plan to come back, simply hold onto your card.
For those who like to plan in advance, and don’t mind a non-refundable deposit of £3.00, it is possible to order a pre-loaded Oystercard to be sent to you before you even leave the house!
How to ‘Top Up’ an Oyster Card
Topping up an Oyster Card is simple. You simply go to a kiosk in ANY Tube station, tap your Oyster Card to the yellow button. Select how much money you want to add to the card. Pay that amount either by credit/debit card or cash. Then tap the yellow button again to close the deal. Watch the video below for a visual guide.
Alternatively, as mentioned above, you can also add money to your Oyster Card at any shop that has the blue “Oyster Card” sign in its window. These are literally EVERYWHERE, so don’t worry about not being able to find a place to top up.
The one thing you should be mindful of is that you CANNOT top up your Oyster Card on a bus or at a bus stop. If you board the bus and it flashes red for insufficient funds, the driver will tell you to leave. Luckily, there is usually a business savvy shop nearby that offers top-ups, but this is something to watch out for if you are planning to travel by bus.
Benefits of Traveling with an Oyster Card (Visitor’s Oyster Card & Regular Oyster Card)
Spend caps. When traveling with an Oyster Card, a ‘cap’ is automatically applied once you reach a certain amount each day. For example, the most you will ever spend in one day when traveling within zones 1 & 2 with an Oyster Card is £6.50. There are different caps for each zone as the cost of travel depends on the distance you go and the time of day. Buses also cap out at £4.50 per day (with each ride costing £1.50).
Hopper fare on buses. The London mayor recently introduced the ‘hopper’ fare, which means that you will be able to switch between as many buses as you like within 1 hour without being charged more than the initial £1.50 fare. London is huge and many journeys require that you take 2 or more buses to get there. With the hopper fare, you will only need to pay £1.50 total for all of those rides as long as the total time does not exceed 1 hour.
Valid to get to Heathrow and Gatwick. Heathrow Airport is at the very end of the Piccadilly Line and therefore can be reached via the Underground with an Oyster Card or Travel Card. Gatwick Airport, which is not on an Underground Line, can only be reached by bus or train. Oyster Cards can be used on the Gatwick Express, which is the fastest train to that airport. Unfortunately, Oyster Cards do not work on the Heathrow Express — yet!
Oyster Cards never expire. If you plan to visit London again in the future, then you can simply hold onto the card and it, as well as the money on it, will never expire.
Travel Cards are prepaid cards that give you unlimited access to specific zones within London. You can choose to either order these in advance (in which case you will be given a paper Travel Card) or you can buy them upon arrival (in which case you will be using a plastic Oyster Card with the Travel Card loaded onto it). They work in the same way and can both be used on buses. The only difference is that you must pay shipping and handling fees to receive the paper card, and in our opinion, these are much easier to lose!
As mentioned above, there are many different lengths of Travel Cards, but the 2 most pertinent to visitors are the 1 Day Travel Cards and the 7 Day Travel Cards. There’s honestly no real reason you would ever need the 1 Day Travel Card as there is already a cap on Oyster Cards which limits the amount you can be charged per day. In fact, you will likely lose money if you choose the 1 Day Travel Card over a regular Oyster. However, the 7 Day Travel Card can save you quite a bit if you’re traveling around the city often.
Cost of a 7 Day Travel Card
The cost of a 7 Day Travel Card varies quite a bit depending on which zones you want to be able to access on it. Generally speaking, unless your accommodation is out in zone 3+, the first 2 zones are probably all you will visit as a tourist. Plus, buses don’t operate in zones and therefore any type of Travel Card will work on them, despite your zone limitations. Click here for a full list of Adult fares with Travel Cards.
But what happens if you need to travel somewhere like Heathrow Airport, which is in zone 6? No problem! You just have to pay the difference for that particular journey. You can do this by topping up an Oyster or buying a single fare ticket. If this sounds confusing, just ask an attendant at any station and they can show you how it’s done!
This depends on what it is you want to do and where you want to go! Note that the London Underground Map is divided into 9 different zones. Zones 1 and 2 are in the centre, where most of the popular visitor attractions are. When traveling across London, it’s worth remember that the further outside of Zones 1 and 2 you need to go, the more expensive your journey can become.
If you are considering our All-in-One London Tour, which utilizes the London Underground, we can help you to determine which transport card to purchase at the start of the tour.
As a general rule of thumb, you can determine which ticket will be best for you depending on the length of time you are in town.
In London for 4 Days or Fewer:
Single Journey: If you have planned ahead and you know that you will only need to use public transport once or twice a day, and you do not wish to get an Oyster card, you can always purchase a single ticket from one part of London to another, which will be issued to you as a paper ticket.
Note: When it comes to single fares on tubes and buses – it is always cheaper to use Oyster Pay-As-You-Go (see below for details on Oyster)!
Pay-As-You-Go: The best part of Oyster Pay-As-You-Go is that you will never be charged more than it would cost to purchase a 1-Day-Travelcard. Once you have spent the equivalent amount on your Oyster card, that you would have spent for a 1-Day-Travelcard, your Oyster card will stop deducting money from your Pay-As-You-Go balance.
Note: Oyster Pay-As-You-Go can also be used on KPMG Thames Clipper River services!
In London for 5 Days or More:
If you are in London for more than 5 days and you know you will be traveling extensively throughout the capital then a 7-Day-Travelcard is the most sensible choice by far. This Travelcard is good on both London Underground as well as London buses and can also net you a discount on some boat journeys.
You may choose to put your 7-Day-Travelcard onto an Oystercard, or you may wish to use a 7-Day-Travelcard paper ticket – the choice is yours.
What are the Ticket Rates for 1-Day-Travelcards and 7-Day-Travelcards?
Rates vary depending on the time you wish to travel and how many zones you want to cover. 4
Zones: Most London attractions are within Zones 1 – 2 but a Zone 1 – 6 covers absolutely all of them, as well as Heathrow airport!
Time: 1-Day-Travelcards and single fare paper tickets come in two different formats: Peak and Off-Peak. Peak means that you can use your ticket or 1-Day-Travelcard any time to travel on the Underground. Off-Peak means your ticket is not valid on weekdays before 9:30 am. If you are fond of lying in – the Off-Peak may be a sensible choice!
Peak and Off-Peak do not apply on 7-Day-Travelcards, Single Cash fares, or bus journeys.
|1-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 – 6||£12.10||£17.20|
|7-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 – 2||£32.40||£31.40|
|7-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 – 6||£59.10||£57.20|
|Single Fare in Zones 1 – 2(Cash)||£4.90||£4.70|
|Single Fare in Zones 1 – 2 (Oyster Pay-As-You-Go)||£2.90||£2.40|
|Bus Journey (Oyster Pay-As-You-Go)||£1.50|
We have some more interesting facts on our blog. This guide is only an overview of the most popular, cheapest, and easiest tickets you may need while you are in London. However, for more information, including tickets for children, travel beyond Zone 6, or bus and tube maps please see the Transport for London Website: www.tfl.gov.uk.
If you found this post helpful, please share this with friends and family. Also, be sure to check out our pay-what-you-like London walking tours.